Monday, 6 May 2013

It’s wrong to use your HIV status to get freebies

Kenya’s flagbearers to the Olympic Torch Relay (from left to right) Evans Wadongo, Asunta Wagura, Paul Tergat and Cecilia Mwangi before carrying the torch in England. Photo/FILE
Kenya’s flagbearers to the Olympic Torch Relay (from left to right) Evans Wadongo, Asunta Wagura, Paul Tergat and Cecilia Mwangi before carrying the torch in England. Photo/FILE 
Posted  Wednesday, May 1   2013 at  01:00

Depending on donor aid, our organisation gives food and other forms of support to people living with HIV who are in dire straits. This is an effort to help them regain their footing. Also, depending on the availability of funds, we give them seed money to start income-generating activities.
We realised that many of our members, most of whom are women, become sole breadwinners due to a number of reasons. Some because their husbands become bedridden and cannot provide, or their spouses lose their jobs due to HIV-related complications, or they are widows and grandmothers caring for orphans and vulnerable children.
What is worse, some of these women have to endure the trauma of their in-laws taking all their property after their husbands die.
This required urgent attention because our members were becoming destitute and desperate by the day.
Someone once said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. With time and experience, we found that our good intention was, in some cases, creating a dependency of sorts and turning us into enablers.
When I tested HIV-positive, I could have done with some seed money. There were no employers out there — at least I never came across any — who were prepared to give a job to an HIV-positive single mother. We had to be creative and, like Hannibal said, “Find a way or make a way.”
Watching my friend Joe Muriuki, who is one of the longest HIV survivors I know, and others being sworn in as members of the HIV/Aids Tribunal the other day brought back sad memories of yesteryears.
In the dark old days, there was what you could call institutionalised stigma. It was as if PLWHs(People Living With HIV) were deemed to be unfit for anything save stigma and discrimination.
Positive change
And the fact that I can now be called for a job, locally and internationally, because of my HIV status just goes to show that things can change. But this can only happen if we do our part.
“It’s up to you now,” I always tell the members that we give seed money to, “because we can only support you to a certain extent.”
Trust me, teaching folks who were used to fish handouts how to fish is one tough assignment. I believe that one of the things that is robbing some PLWHs of their financial independence is Aids. Nope, not that Aids.
I am talking about Acquired Immune Dependency Syndrome. There are some who see their HIV sero-positive status as a meal ticket. They refuse to work and instead let the virus work for them.
Our community health workers (CHWs) used to tell me of some PLWHs who were members of several HIV service organisations.
“They are card-carrying members of all these NGOs and they know the days when each organisation gives food and will be there on time, every time.”
Individuals like these give PLWHs a bad name. I have, multiple times, had to caution our CHWs to guard against giving seed money to the same members. There is only so much that we can do for one person.
What disheartened me was hearing reports from our nurses about people who were, literally, asking for it.
“We’ve had cases of some people who are HIV-negative begging us to say they are HIV-positive just so they can be put in our food support programme.”
“These people don’t know what they’re asking for,” I said.
We have a choice
I am a firm believer that work is ordained by God and that it is a blessing. There are days that I drag myself to the office, even when I am feeling unwell, because I know that my line of work deals with human beings. It touches on matters of life and death.
Years ago, the HIV community fought against being called victims or sufferers. We reasoned that those monikers demeaned us and made us look like we did not have a choice. That is why it saddens me to hear some of our people who are able-bodied calling themselves sufferers.
Through saying and doing, I am trying to teach my children that work is honourable and rewarding. I know there is a sub-culture in our country of folks waiting for things to happen. Sufferers, if you may. Guys who wait for the government to do. Or, tragically, some lying that they are HIV-positive so they can be given things without sweating.
Today being Labour Day, it has just occurred to me that since I started my HIV work, I have never gone on annual leave.
This is the diary of Asunta Wagura, a mother-of-five who tested HIV-positive 25 years ago. She is the executive director of the Kenya Network of Women with Aids (KENWA). Email:

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